2007-01-25

Should Christians use images?

Today one of my college students sent me this question:
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Hey... got a question for ya, I'll try to keep this short:

I attached a picture of the triquetra, one of my favorite trinity symbols. I was recently looking at the symbol on google, trying to find one that I think would look good on a t-shirt or something.

However, in what could only be God trying to compel me to delve further into religion, I discovered that in Acts 17:29, it says, "Therefore since we are God's offspring, we should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone—an image made by man's design and skill." Am I analyzing this way too much, or am I looking at a verse that basically says that I shouldn't, for example, wear a ring with the triquetra symbol on it? If you could maybe clear this up for me, that'd be yet another awesome point for ya. Thanks!
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Aha... what you ask is part of a huge issue about the use of images (icons) in worship... which I very much support.

The view which Paul was preaching against in that passage is the view that the "divine being" was somehow contained in part, or in whole, within a carved image (i.e. an idol). The word used in Acts 17.29 is "kharagma", which means mark, stamp, image, or representation (i.e. a 3-dimensional representation of something). The second commandment, not to make a "carved image", refers to the Hebrew word "pesel", which means the same basic thing as the Greek word "kharagma".

The only 3-dimensional thing said to bear God's image is humanity (cf. Gen 1.26-28) and Christ Himself (cf. Hebrews 1.1-3).

But, lots of other 3-dimensional things in the Bible are said to declare God's glory (without bearing his image), such as the Old Testament Tabernacle, the Temple, and even nature itself which "declares the glory of God" (cf. Psalm 19.1-3).

Now, how does this all apply?

First, 3-dimensional images which supposedly depict God's image (or even worse, contain God within them) are straight-out wrong. God cannot be contained in anything, not even the highest heaven above (1Kings 1.27). Nothing can contain God except that which God CHOOSES to contain Him, which leads us to...

Second, God has chosen to be "contained" in the person of Christ, in whom "all the fullness of God" dwells (cf. Phil. 2; Col. 1-2; Heb. 1). And, in turn, Christ says that He is present in a special way when we serve the needy and meet together for worship and fellowship as his followers (cf. Mat 10.40; Mat 18.20; Mat. 25:31-46; Mat 28.20). We encounter the Risen Christ in other people, because people are made "in the image of God".

Third, there is no prohibition in the Bible of making statues of humans to remember what was done through them. So, this leads us to a peculiar position in reference to Christ: He is fully human, yet fully God. I think for this reason it is permissible to make a statue of Christ to remember him, because it celebrates the fact that Jesus became human for our sakes (as the Creed reminds us every Sunday). As long as we do not think we are somehow capturing or containing Christ's divinity in the statue, much less using it as an idol or a good-luck charm, then statues of Christ are fine.

Fourth, none of what we have talked about thus far has anything to do with 2-dimensional images. The Bible's prohibitions deal only with three dimensional statues of idols. Two-dimensional images have never- in the ancient world or the modern world- carried the same sense of imitating reality that 3-d statues have (think of the emotional difference between a TV image and a hologram or virtual reality simulator). 2-d images always imply emotional distance that says "this is not the real world, only a representation".

Fifth, thus we may make a whole host of two-dimensional symbols and pictures to represent God, because it is patently obvious that a 2-d image is not an attempt to construct an idol to worship. The best example of this is a picture of a loved one. When I see an image of my daughter, feelings of love and closeness are stirred up in me, but I am very aware that these feelings are in no way directed TO the picture. Instead, they are directed THROUGH the picture to the true object of my affection: my real, living, smiling, talking daughter.

Sixth, this is where the Orthodox tradition of using icons in worship comes from. True icons are two-dimensional (NEVER three dimensional). They see icons as windows that God opens into our world, that we may worship THROUGH as a focal point for our love and devotion to Him (not to the icon). This is my understanding about using two-dimensional images as focal points to worship God through. After all, what are words? They are two-dimensional verbal pictures, written on a page, that we worship God THROUGH.

Finally, this is why I like to use two dimensional icons as tools of worship, and why I believe they are perfectly acceptable and useful for those who worship the God of the Bible. I appreciate and use statues of Christ as well, especially if they are un-painted and not made to look life-like. Painted, life-like statues of Christ start to wig me out (and border on violating the second commandment). And totem poles and other types of statues meant to embody or represent God are just not good. Statues of saints are OK, especially if they are not totally life-like. However, in churches that have a real fervent "cult of the saints" there is a real problem of idolatry, because people often move from asking the saints to pray FOR them, to actually praying TO the saints.

Basically, what I have given you here is the "high church" understanding of icons and statues, as understood by Anglicans and Eastern Orthodox Churches. Roman Catholics tend to err more toward life-like statues and semi-idolatry than I agree with, and Protestants err more toward totally denying God's gift of the visual arts than I agree with.

May Christ fill your life,
Nate Bostian
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This is a bunch of stuff to make us think hard about our incredible love affair with the God of the universe, our astounding infidelities against him, and his incredible grace to heal and restore us through Christ. Everything on this site is copyright © 1996-2015 by Nathan L. Bostian so if you use it, cite me... otherwise you break the 8th commandment, and make God unhappy. You can contact the author by posting a comment.